Cassandra Wilson - Coming Forth By Day (2015)

Cassandra Wilson
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The lists of artists who performed tunes made famous by Billie Holiday is long and distinguished. The list includes Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, John Coltrane, Miki Howard, Lynn Fiddmont and, coming soon, Jose James. Holiday was among the first vocalists to use modern amplification techniques to develop and refine a style of singing that was less operatic and more intimate and personal.

Many of the tunes that Holiday recorded are now considered standards, meaning covered - often in the reverential tone befitting sacred text. I can understand why singers can’t resist the temptation to cover the waterfront the way that Lady Day covered it. However, there is also something appealing about artists who seek to do more than simply remake the tunes from the Billie Holiday Songbook – they seek to reimagine those numbers.

The lists of artists who performed tunes made famous by Billie Holiday is long and distinguished. The list includes Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, John Coltrane, Miki Howard, Lynn Fiddmont and, coming soon, Jose James. Holiday was among the first vocalists to use modern amplification techniques to develop and refine a style of singing that was less operatic and more intimate and personal.

Many of the tunes that Holiday recorded are now considered standards, meaning covered - often in the reverential tone befitting sacred text. I can understand why singers can’t resist the temptation to cover the waterfront the way that Lady Day covered it. However, there is also something appealing about artists who seek to do more than simply remake the tunes from the Billie Holiday Songbook – they seek to reimagine those numbers.

Coltrane actually had the advantage of being an instrumentalist, and that helped to make his versions of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “It’s Easy To Remember,” two songs that appeared on Holiday’s final album, Lady In Satin, so memorable. However, if being a singer is a disadvantage for artists looking to put their unique stamp on the Holiday catalog, Cassandra Wilson easily surmounts that handicap on Coming Forth By Day, her tribute to the woman born Elenora Fagan on April 7, 1915.

Wilson is a vocalist who is conversant in blues, gospel, jazz, country, R&B and musical theater singing, as anyone who heard her riveting performance in Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize winning oratorio Blood on the Fields,knows. Wilson not only deploys all of those vocal influences throughout Coming Forth By Day, but she managed to recruit a producer and cast of musicians who would ensure that derivative will never be used in connection with this project.

Wilson tapped producer/arranger Nick Launay to serve in that capacity on this project. Launay, a Brit, is known for working with rock and alt-rock acts such as Arcade Fire, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, INXS, Kate Bush and the Talking Heads, and this project benefitted from the rock and alternative influences and production techniques that Launay incorporated.

The cuts on Coming Forth By Day often have a haunting and dark feel and that, combined with Wilson’s smoky and strong vocals, give the songs a different meaning – even when singer and producer didn’t tinker with the words as they did on “Don’t Explain.” Holiday endowed that tune with the same sense of knowing resignation about her man’s penchant for straying that Tammy Wynette would give “Stand By Your Man” years later. Wilson, however, ain’t playing that. Where Holiday sings “I’m glad you’re you’re back,” meaning I’m willing to forget what you’ve done out on those streets now that you’re back with me. Wilson’s powerful vocal simmer with rage as she sings “I’m glad, I’m back,” meaning I’m happy that I’ve finally come to my senses. Holiday’s “right or wrong don’t matter,” becomes “right or wrong/it matters” in Wilson’s version.

Launay can transform a tune’s meaning without changing the words, as is the case with edge adopted on the tune “All Of Me.” The strings give the arrangement an edgy cutting feel that distinguishes it from the Holiday version with its narrative of a person happily willing to lose themselves in their lover. A sense of loss pervades Wilson’s version as she sings from the standpoint of who looks back with the realization that she invested so much into a relationship –and for what?

However, just when the listener thinks the output on Coming Forth By Day is an alternative music lover’s dream, Wilson includes a version of “The Way You Look Tonight” that is lush with swelling strings and sounds like something Ray Ellis arranged for Lady In Satin. But then, they follow that up with a version of “Good Morning Heartache” that’s a cross between Cannonball Adderly’s version of “Autumn Leaves” and something Lou Reed  might have done with The Velvet Underground.

How good is this record? On a project that includes memorable versions of “Strange Fruit” and “These Foolish Things,”  the standout for me a glorious remaking of “You Go To My Head,” that includes a funk infused bass and the kind of swelling strings that recall the glory days of Gamble and Huff. We will never know if Holiday would have tried her hand at R&B music if she had survived into the 60s or even 70s. Lady Day was only 44 when she died, so there was time for that kind of evolution. I can’t imagine that the woman who sang “Strange Fruit” in the late 30s and early 40s and who faced down the Klan would have faced the emergence of R&B and rock music with fear. And as Wilson proves on Coming Forth By Day, fearlessness has its rewards. Strongly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes


 
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